Indian government’s ambitious intelligence gathering project National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) will be up and running much sooner than expected as the government has allowed its databases, the National Population Register (NPR) and Immigration, Visa, Foreigners Registration and Tracking System (IVFRT), to be linked to the project immediately, reports Economic Times.

It was decided at a meeting chaired by Home Secretary Anil Goswami on January 6, to undertake a NATGRID ‘pilot’ immediately using the data sources of NPR and IVFRT. According to earlier reports the project was supposed to go live just ahead of polls, but it looks like the government is in a hurry to get it up and running.

The initial stage could involve the “real-time linking” of data between various agencies through the NATGRID platform, according to the publication. The project may link Central databases with crime records available with the police to kickstart operations and later proceed with analysing the data to detect and act against terrorist activities.

NATGRID was set up by the government in the aftermath of Mumbai attacks at an estimated cost of Rs 4,000-5,000 crore to enable monitoring of terrorist operations through existing banking, finance and transportation networks. Various ministries and departments, called provider agencies, that hold 21 categories of citizen database like bank account details, telephone records, passport data and vehicle registration details, are supposed to be linked and shared in real-time through the NATGRID with the 11 intelligence and investigative agencies, termed as user agencies. The government could soon issue an executive order to give a legal framework and mandate to NATGRID to act as such a bridge.

Part of a bigger picture: The government has been working on a Centralised Monitoring Agency (CMS), a project prepared by the Telecom Enforcement, Resource and Monitoring (TREM) and the Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT) and manned by the Intelligence Bureau. The government believes that it can use data from CMS along with that available via Aadhar and pass it around the various government departments through the NATGRID to stop terrorism. However it could also be used to target people who might be against the government. That being the case, it needs to be seen how this project evolves and how exactly it is used by the government agencies.

An Internet monitoring system called ‘Netra’ which will be capable to detect suspicious words like ‘attack’, ‘bomb’, ‘blast’ or ‘kill’ in real time on social media, emails, instant messaging services, blogs and others is also in the works. It has been developed by Centre for Artificial Intelligence & Robotics (CAIR), a lab under Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) whose research focuses on various defense related areas in Information and Communication Technology.

The government recently said that it will also seek help from US to intercept and decrypt data shared through messaging services such as Whatsapp, Skype etc. if the companies  don’t hand over the information themselves. It also plans to complain to the US that services providers like Hotmail, Google, Facebook and Twitter have “never even in a single case” provided profile or e-mail contents requested by India for investigations and have refused to remove hate speech contents from the social networking websites. All of this looks like a build up to the launch of NATGRID and CMS.

Where are the laws? India still does not have a privacy law and without one it is very easy for someone handling such a project to overstep the line and target individuals. Earlier this year, international human rights organisation, Human Rights Watch (HRW, New York) had called out the Indian Government to enact clear laws regarding surveillance and protection of privacy of its citizens. It had also asked the government to hold a full and transparent public debate on the matter.